DIRECTOR ALEX Garland is downplaying the sex appeal of the robot-woman star of "Ex Machina," but the design speaks for itself.

You see "her" in the posters - half bikini model, half bionic machine, like something that Sir Jonathan Paul Ive might have designed for Apple had the company been founded by Bob Guccione instead of Steve Jobs.

And the design is crucial to the story - that of a young software geek (Domnhall Gleeson) assigned to evaluate this robo-gal for the existence of a native, human intelligence.

He's doing just fine until she (Alicia Vikander as Ava) starts to assert her . . . let's call it charm.

"The whole idea of Ava as female raises the question of where gender resides," said Garland, a novelist making his first try as director after writing scripts for Danny Boyle ("Sunshine," "28 Days Later").

"The whole Ava-as-female thing is about how you define what her gender is, where it resides.

"The movie is about consciousness, so is that where her gender is? Or is it in that physical form, which seems so obviously female. You feel like you should use the word 'she,' but it would be very easy to construct an argument that she doesn't have a gender."

But not, as we see in 'Ex Machina" if you're in the same room with "her."

Garland is keen not to give too much away, and in any case prefers to see Ava as a character formed of abstract ideas.

"Is gender conferred on you by other people? If you live as a woman and if you experience society as a woman, is that what makes you a woman?"

Ava, as we see in "Ex Machina," has not experienced society as anything. She's been built by a reclusive tech genius (Oscar Isaac), and kept in isolation. Gleeson's character (fairly sheltered himself) is the first human she's met, other than her creator.

"The film in its most reductive sense is how you establish what's going on - or not going on - in someone else's head.

"A young man, and therefore effectively the audience, is given a task of establishing what is going on inside Ava's head. It's a very clear instruction. And he's following that instruction, asking pertinent questions.

"And at a certain point what the young guy does is he just stops, he's been going down that path, and he just stops and the question is why? And the answer to questions posed in this film is attached to why he stopped."

Garland said most of the movie's themes concern the coming advances in artificial intelligence, the idea of machines becoming human, the merging of man and machine.

But "Ex Machina" also looks at technology as it now exists, the changes it has already wrought - changes that Garland views with a healthy degree of suspicion.

You see it in the way he's written Isaac's tech magnate, whose alternately welcoming and threatening character seems to embody what is simultaneously welcoming and threatening about the Internet itself.

"I get very interested in the way big tech companies present themselves to us. They go to an enormous amount of effort not to show that they're smart or slick or anything more than just your friend, and you can all just hang out together. Like peers who all 'get' the same thing, that are all on the same wavelength.

"But if they were friends of yours, they would be a different kind of friend," he said. "They'd be friends that are constantly going through your address book and sort of removing dollar bills from you're wallet while you weren't looking."

"Ex Machina" also shows technology being developed in secret, without ethical or legal constraints.

"I really admire [the achievements of] Google, but they're really, really, really powerful and they don't have meaningful oversight. They just don't. And it has simply never, ever been a good idea for people and organizations to operate without it."